Archives for posts with tag: Victorian times

Verdi portrait

The other day my daughter mentioned the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, and I was reminded of a fantastic portrait of him painted by Giovanni Boldini. When I was at art school I had a poster of this image on my wall, so the splendid gentleman with his top hat and jaunty scarf would greet me often in the course of my day. The poster is long gone, but just a mention of the name Verdi instantly brings this handsome portrait back to me.

Did you know that in the World Beard and Moustache Championships there is a category of beard called the “Verdi”? Of course there is. There are quite a few people around the world who take facial hair very seriously!

world beard champs

These guys have all been competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. A good number of them come from Germany and Switzerland, where beard cultivation is a well developed art form.

Over the centuries, beards and moustaches have gone in and out of fashion. Depending on the look you choose, the effect can vary enormously. A big white beard for example, as worn by Socrates and Santa Claus, is reassuring and conveys wisdom and kindness.

Painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.


A carefully manicured goatee, worn by Charles Dickens, gave him an air of distinction and individuality. Apparently he was also fond of fancy waistcoats and gold jewellery. Very dapper!


Shakespeare is thought to have been bearded too. There is some doubt as to what he really looked like, but this painting makes him look very cultured and intelligent:


His neatly trimmed beard comes to a point, and brings to mind another Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days a beard was a sign of manliness, but in the next century (the 17th) it became fashionable for men to be clean-shaven with long, curly hair (often wigs).

17th century man

Fashions come and go (thank goodness) and not everyone follows the herd. In the 1960s it was in protest against social constraints and repressive government policies that young people grew their hair and beards long and called themselves “Hippies.” In the ’70s and ’80s beards became unfashionable again, as money and success were seen as what society should be striving for once more. For some men it came down to a choice between their beard and their job, as certain occupations (police, health care professionals, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) forbade facial hair.

Thankfully, today there is much more freedom in that department, and the beard is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

beard comp poster

There are clubs and associations around the world celebrating a rich variety of facial decoration. Celebrities from George Clooney to Graham Norton are sporting beards these days, and for those who have been standing out in the crowd for the last few decades it comes as a bit of a shock.

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Children’s author Philip Ardagh stands two metres tall and has always worn a prodigious beard to match his size 16 feet. Now that beards are all the rage, he may have to up his game! Maybe a little moustache wax will do the trick…

Katrine mist

Scotland has been enjoying some fantastic autumn weather, and one weekend my family and I drove up to Loch Katrine in the district of Stirling to enjoy the beautiful views of the Trossachs. This is a perfect place to walk at a leisurely pace surrounded by stunning scenery, and if you feel like relaxing even more you can hop aboard the Steamship Sir Walter Scott for a cruise around the loch!

Loch Katrine steamer

Half of our group opted for the boat ride, and the other half chose to walk. Being one of the walkers, I was able to get this photo of the steamship just setting off. It looked very festive with its colourful bunting, and when it met another boat on the loch (the Lady of the Lake being the other) it would set off a loud horn as if to say, “Coming through! Make way for Sir Walter Scott!” This Victorian steamship has been cruising the loch for over 100 years, with regular tours running four times a day from late May to late October. The Lady of the Lake is a smaller, newer boat, and it does three tours a day during the same period.

Katrine path 1

The path for walkers is wide and flat initially, curving round the side of the loch with stunning views over the water. When the weather is good, the path is hugely popular with dog walkers and cyclists. You can even hire bikes there, so no need to bring your own! I think it’s possible to walk or cycle right round the entire loch, but I must admit I’ve never done it. After a while the path moves away from the water and gets quite hilly!

Katrine waterfall

Loch Katrine is the main source of drinking water for the city of Glasgow and surrounding areas. Two 26-mile-long aqueducts and 13 miles of tunnel channel the water to a treatment plant in Milngavie just north of Glasgow. Because Milngavie is 400 metres above sea level it provides enough pressure to supply all of Glasgow’s water without pumping.

This system of water provision was designed and built by Civil Engineer John Frederick Bateman, and the first aqueduct was opened by Queen Victoria in 1859. The second one was completed in 1901, and in 1958 another tunnel was completed under Ben A’an bringing water from the Glen Finglas Reservoir. The waterfall above is Glen Finglas water channeling down into Loch Katrine.


This plaque stands near the waterfall and commemorates the opening of the tunnel and the people who made it possible. Since the tunnel had been dug underneath a mountain, this was quite an achievement! HRH Princess Margaret performed the official opening.

Katrine steamer sailing

As my daughter and I walked around the sparkling loch we saw the steamship catching up and passing us. It was going at a surprising speed! It circled the whole loch in about an hour, and when we saw it heading back to dock we knew we had to rush back to meet it.

Katrine path 2

I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of the amazing views as we retraced our steps. As you can see, we couldn’t have had better weather! There are only a few more days in October to take a ride on the steamship Sir Walter Scott as its last sailing is on the 20th. I’m sure over the next few weeks Loch Katrine will become even more beautiful as the trees turn gold in the autumn chill. I’ll have to go back again soon!

Katrine vista

A while back my family and I visited a very unusual museum called the Thursford Collection in Fakenham, Norfolk. Inside a dark, cavernous former barn is housed the most remarkable collection of giant street organs, steam-powered tractors and gaudy Victorian fairground rides.

Loud organ music fills the air as gilded carousel horses spin and the street organs take turns bursting into song! (If you’d like to hear the spot-lit De Leewin organ above in action, click HERE.)

Everything sparkles red and gold in the huge hall lined with spotlights. The decorative steam tractor above was designed to replace horses as a means of pulling heavy loads along paved roads (as you can see by the smooth tyres). Larger versions of this sort of vehicle with ridged tyres were used to pull ploughs on farms from the 1850s until the early 1900s. Because they were much heavier than horses, these big iron tractors had a bit of trouble and would often get stuck in a muddy field!

The fancy red-and-gold steam tractor may well have had a “showman” purpose at a fair, where it would have been used to pull a handsome street organ to the fairground. The small one shown above is a street organ built by Carl Frei, a German musician who started repairing them as a young man. Later he went on to modify and improve on the design to create a bigger sound, and he built his own “Traveling Concert Organs” from 1920 until his death in 1967.

The small Carl Frei organ above was built in 1928. (If you look closely you can see several painted ladies in flapper costumes and cloche hats – the height of fashion in the 1920s.) As technology improved and demand for a bigger sound increased, so did the size of Carl Frei’s musical machines! This one below from the Thursford Collection is considerably bigger than his earlier model:

You can see the female figures have also got much shorter skirts! The almost life-size ladies at each end of the display are holding drums which they tap in time to the music. Not only did these amazing machines produce complex pipe organ music, but the figures in front also entertained the audience with their clever mechanised movements.

To understand what went on behind the scenes, I have found a great YouTube video that shows the back of one of these organs in action. You can watch the spinning wheels and pulleys that draw a folded length of card through a sort of “reader” where the holes punched in the card signal a series of notes to be played. (It reminds me of the player piano we used to have at home which played music in the same way using rolls of perforated paper. In that case the power was provided by one of us pumping on the piano pedals!)

This type of organ is most widely known as a Dutch street organ, although most were built in Germany, France, Belgium, England and the USA. It seems they were so popular in the Netherlands that this was where many of them ended up! The organ above was made in Paris, and you can see it must date from around 1900 because it has four elegant ladies painted very much in the style of Alphonse Mucha.

In addition to all these amazing organs and the rollicking fairground rides you can try out, the Thursford Collection also features a daily show in which a Wurlitzer organ is played by a musician with incredible skill. If I show you a picture of the Wurlitzer keyboard you will understand what I mean:

Not only did the organist play all four of these keyboards at once, he was also using his feet to tap on about forty pedals underneath! Talk about multi-tasking! I don’t think I was alone in being very impressed. So if you happen to be in Norfolk, the Thursford Collection is well worth a visit.

There are other street organ museums in St Albans, Scarborough and Utrecht in the Netherlands (and I’m sure other places). There’s even a Fair Organ Preservation Society and a Mechanical Organ Owners Society. Something for everyone!

The port city of Belém (which in English means Bethlehem) was founded in 1616 by the Portuguese at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. (You can see the city marked with a red square on the map below.) The earliest buildings were built in the same style as those in Lisbon, Portugal, and painted the same pastel colours. As you can see in the photo above, there are still some lovely examples of colonial architecture left in the city.

Belém began as a small river port where small boats brought fish, shellfish and all sorts of exotic fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs gathered from the Amazon forest to sell at the market. Although the city has grown into a giant metropolis full of skyscrapers and highrise apartment blocks, the market at the port continues exactly as it has for hundreds of years.

During Victorian times (about 120 years ago) a complete market building made of cast iron was brought over from Britain. It was sent by boat in pieces and then put together in the port of Belém. As you can see above, it is very distinctive with pointy towers at each corner and decorative arches around all four sides.

The market is called Ver-o-Peso, which means “see the weight.” This name comes from the tradition of selling goods by weight in balancing scales. That way the customer could check to make sure there was no cheating!

The day we visited Ver-o-Peso was very hot. We wandered around looking at many different types of fish inside that cast iron building. It was as smelly as you’d expect a giant fish shop to be!

Outside the market building there were hundreds of other stalls where people were selling fruit, vegetables, crafts, jewellery, and even live animals! My son was particularly taken by the ducklings, but sadly there was no way we could get one of those on a plane home.

In the port we looked at all the fishing boats, and Anna spotted a beautiful heron standing on the dockside. Another type of bird we saw at the market was not so pretty – it was a vulture. There were quite a number of vultures hovering around, just waiting to snatch up a fish or two.

If you want to read more about the city of Belém and see more pictures, click HERE.

Anna has just reminded me of a fantastic book by Eva Ibbotson which is set in the Amazon. It’s called Journey to the River Sea, and it’s all about a 13-year-old orphan girl called Maia who has to go and live with some distant relatives who live in Manaus. (That is a city just a few hundred miles along the Amazon River from Belém.) If you’d like to read an excellent story all about life in the Amazon jungle, that is one I can recommend. I loved it!

Another book about a journey up the Amazon River is called Lizzie: A Victorian Lady’s Amazon Adventure. This one is for older readers, and is made up of letters written by a young woman who went with her husband to run a rubber plantation in Bolivia in the 1890s. She describes her long journey along the river from Belém, during which floods and rapids nearly capsized her boat. The book is full of photographs, including one that shows the Ver-o-Peso market in 1898! It’s fascinating to read a true account of someone who travelled in the Amazon jungle over 100 years ago with none of the conveniences we have today. They didn’t even have mosquito repellent! Imagine!

When my sister and I were about five and seven, a distant relative gave us a very special gift. It was a big china doll that she had owned when she was a child. In the picture above you can see what Cousin Bernice looked like as a girl. It’s a really old photograph from Victorian times, so it is a bit faded and stained. (That mark on her face is just a grease spot!)

By the time she gave us Big Doll, Cousin Bernice (who was a cousin of my grandmother’s) was a very old lady. We thought the doll was beautiful with its smooth porcelain face and big brown eyes. Her hair felt like real hair, and her clothes were lacy and elegant.

As well as the clothes she was wearing, the doll had a big trunk full of things a kind couple had made just for her. The man was a tailor and he sewed a heavy winter coat and hat for her, and a white cotton nightgown with pink ribbons. You can see the hat (with a pink flower on it) and the nightgown in the open trunk. The kind lady knitted sweet pink mittens and a scarf for the doll. They must have been good friends of Bernice’s parents. I wonder if the doll and all her clothes were a birthday or Christmas present for Bernice.

I don’t know if Bernice played a lot with Big Doll. We found her so heavy to lift (because she is entirely made of china) that we were rather afraid of breaking her! So she has spent much of her time sitting in the blue rocking chair watching the world go by. She seems happy enough!

When I was about eleven years old I saw another antique doll in a flea market. I was desperate to have her and my Mum agreed to buy her for me. (I don’t think she was very expensive back then.) This little German doll is much smaller and has a soft body so she is easier to play with. Her golden hair is done up in two braids at the back, and her painted face is made of papier maché. This makes her very light and quite delicate. Because she had no shoes when we bought her, I sewed a special pair of black felt booties for her feet. I couldn’t make her any clothes, though, because she is quite firmly sewn into these ones!

Do you have any special toys that you will keep forever? Why not write and tell me about them?